Exploring the future of Life Economy with BGI Co-Founder Wang Jian
Founded in 1999, BGI is now one of the world’s premier genome sequencing centers, empowering large-scale human, plant, and animal genomics research from its modern-day headquarters in Shenzhen. BGI’s co-founder, Wang Jian, started the company while acting as the main initiator on many international research projects including the International 1000 Genomes Project, the Rice Genome Project, and the Silkworm Genome Project. On his recent visit to Boston, Lin Yang, President of Innovation Ideas Institute, had the pleasure in conversing and discovering the minds behind China’s life sciences giant.
Lin Yang: Welcome! Before our meeting, I did some online research about BGI, I first noticed that your web domain is “genomics.org.cn”, not “.com” as I presumed. Would you please explain the nature of the organization, your vision when creating it, and your future plans for theinstitution?
Wang Jian: BGI was founded as a non-profit organization. We initially set it up in order to participate in the Human Genome Project, which was a completely scientific research project. Thedomain continued since then. With our own strength and capabilities to participate in the human genome project, we considered ourselves as “global resident”. We were great! So why shall we make it .com? .com means “make money”, I think money is a “byproduct”. We are different from others, and BGI is always called “an organization”. We have both non-profit and for-profit sectors. Our core objective is to find a new way of life. We did not feel for the way a company functions. However, we also do not want to adopt a government model supported by other people, neither want to be a charity organization. We live in this world, contributing to ourselves, contributing to the society, and it is our biggest goal. That is why is .org.
Lin Yang: That is why people all call you professor Wang, rather than a boss or President?
Wang Jian: No, no. We have BGI College that has masters and PhD programs. I also have a dozen of master and PhD students, and never stop teaching, which is why they call me Professor Wang.
Lin Yang: So, in addition to research and development, there is a big education sector at BGI.
Wang Jian: We have BGI Research, with more than 1,000 people doing basic research, which has nothing to do with making money; we have BGI College, there are hundreds of Master and PhD students who are studying there; We have the China National Genebank, the first national genebank which we are responsible for its establishment and management; we also have Giga Science, a new open-access online journal. These four are completely non-profit.
Lin Yang: Nature index has put BGI in high ranking together with several other research institutes anduniversities of China, based on quality and quantity of the papers published.
Do you think that BGI is truly an innovative organization?
Wang Jian: Before we came to Shenzhen, Shenzhen seldom published Nature,
or Science papers. In the past 8 years since we moved to Shenzhen, BGI has already produced over 200 Nature and Science series publications in Shenzhen. In basic research, our contribution to China and all the society is reputable. Don’t you think it is innovation?
Lin Yang: How do you conduct your basic research and indigenous R&D?
Wang Jian: We are committed to solve the major issues and problems of development in our society which we regard as our major life goals. Whatever kind of tools we need, whatever kind of basic research we need, we are going to work on that. Our goal is clear. We are not innovating purely for innovation, not to be entrepreneurial purely for entrepreneurship.
When we are looking for a new model of life, we have to ask: what is the social significance and goal for this new model of life? If we put all these together, we are entering into a whole new realm.
Just now two MIT professors spoke about innovation and entrepreneurship, when I get on the stage, I said I disagree. Why do we pursue innovation and entrepreneurship? What do we live in the world for? For the society, what can we do when alive and what we can leave behind when we leave? This is the essence of innovationand entrepreneurship, and it has to be related to the meaning of life.
I am opposed to innovation and entrepreneurship solely for the sake of innovation and entrepreneurship. I say I was “opponent” or “rebellion” in China, also in US. We have totally different attitudes, values, and philosophy of life. BGI is unconventional.
Lin Yang: It is only been 17 years since BGI’s establishment in 1999, BGI has already grown into China’s leading institution, even well known internationally. Do you attribute BGI’s big success more toChina’s rapid economic growth over the past few decades, or to a more favorablepolicy environment, or to China’s huge market potential, or to your ownidealistic and strong leadership?
Wang Jian: BGI has two birthdays. The first one is for the establishment for HGP which was in 1999. Later on we were recruited in the government system. In 2007, we set path again into private business. So it was born first in 1999, and the second resurrection in 2007. We have always been focusing on basic scientific research and innovation, and combined with China context. So for the questions you just asked, it is a combination.
In the history of China’s social development, it is rare to have such an institution that can push the science and technology to the international forefront, but also closely related to China context. Relating to China context means to be in line with the country’s development direction, in line with China’s huge society needs, in line with China’s low middle-level income, and in line with the enormous mobilizing capacity in China society. Combining the cutting-edge technology with China’s context, we develop a unique development model at BGI. Not any individual has the strength or ability to bring BGI to today. Without the China context, there is no BGI. Without the support of the cutting edge technology, we could not enter the world.
Lin Yang: Could you objectively assess the overall level of the current China’s life sciences sector?
Wang Jian: In recent years, China has spent a lot of money and efforts in bringing talents from overseas, together with the improvement of the domestic talent, the gap is not big in some advanced sectors between China and the world. However, in terms of transferring these science and technology into industries, transferring them into something which can benefit the human society, there are still challenges in policy and regulations, the use of capital, and in the organization of production and services. We are fortunate that BGI has done a little earlier and better in terms of this.
Lin Yang: BGI’s leading position in China maybe unquestionable. Compared with international peers, whatposition do you think you are in, especially in indigenous innovation?
Wang Jian: If comparing only one specialized sector, any organizations may have their own advantages or disadvantages in some ways.
Objectively speaking, in terms of indigenous innovation and transfer, we are almost in a synchronization position with the world. The articles we published on the world’s top scientific journals can explain that. Not just by what I say myself. Our goal is clear, which is whether what I do can contribute to society development. We hope to leave something remarkable in human society.
Lin Yang: So how do you cultivate the innovation gene in your organization, and build up your own innovation eco-system within BGI?
Wang Jian: We are different from others. Whatever we do, we are required to answer do we like doing it ourselves? Is it useful to ourselves? For example, if we do genetic testing, we first asked ourselves whether we ourselves have taken it. This kind of exploration and innovation comes from our inner self, and is
closely related to ourselves. This is the driving force of our development.
Lin Yang: This is your core competitiveness?
Wang Jian: We do not like to compete with others. We just want to live better and longer. We only compete with ourselves.
Lin Yang: For all your peers internationally, institutions or commercial companies, you said they havestrength and weaknesses. In your perspective, what are the similarities and thedifferences in innovation between them and Chinese organizations? What are theadvantages and disadvantages of each? Any opportunities for cooperation?
Wang Jian: Let’s put it like this: they have many wonderful individual experts, like the Masters in martial arts. However, in terms of team work and scale, if we combine all forces together, we are the strongest.
If you go to Harvard, MIT, University of Washington, each professor’s team has their own expertise which we may not have. So BGI has been fully taken advantage of the China context.
The main challenge now is in policies and regulations. In US, a fully market economy and strict regulations have placed challenges in advanced research and technology. In addition, existing social structure and commercial interests hindered the development.
We both have strength and weaknesses. We are fully confident that we will continue to be leading in this area. Serve the human society is our priority, not competition.
Lin Yang: Could you be more specific when you mentioned the challenges of policies and regulations inthe US, and less so in China?
Wang Jian: Now the clinical application of genetic testing needs to go through a long approval process in the U.S. China used to have policy barriers too, but recently have opened up a lot for pilot experiments, which opens up opportunities. Therefore, each has advantages and disadvantages.
Lin Yang: Do you mean that some international research institutions are more specialized in certainareas, an China is good overall, esp at market application and scale itup? Is this what you mean?
Wang Jian: Yes and No. We are not saying that we are stronger than anyone else. Our value is to make remarkable contribution for human development in human historyusing advanced science and technology. For instance, can we try to eliminate all the schools for people handicapped in speech or hearing? This is possibleby early genetic testing and prevention. Can we popularize women’s “two cancer” (cervical cancer, breast cancer) testing across China and the whole world? These will benefit the wholehuman kind. We want these to be a global public welfare. It is not a charity, but it is a public welfare, with some small or minimal financial returns to support its fastcoverage around the world. Bringing these advanced tech to human society is a new mode of thinking, a new development model. We are willing to do so.
Lin Yang: What is BGI’s plan globally in the next 5 - 10 years?
Wang Jian: What I have mentioned just now, I hope that they can all rapidly cover globally. Can we popularize the “two cancer” testing around the world with low price? If we can cover all 2 to 3 billion women at the right age globally, how remarkable contribution we will make to human society? If all the world’schildren are able to receive genetic testing and prediction for deaf, eyes and relateddiseases, all these genetic diseases will never exist any more. How big an impact this will be to human kind! This is our naturalprocess of internationalization. This is a public welfare, a cause to impact the
human progress. It is also our branding, and a cause for global coverage. We do not say internationalization, we say global coverage.
Lin Yang: You mentioned several times your value of public welfare or non profit, will this value gainconsensus when doing your business development, and raising capitals?
Wang Jian: We control our own destiny. We contribute to mankind, with appropriate economic returns. We are not working for nothing. Nor are we doing charity by receiving donations from others. We not only have economic balance, but also have small profit.
I want to emphasize that we are not doing charity, we do public welfare. When applying advanced technology in society, if we do notreduce the current cost exponentially, it is not high-tech. We drop the costs, and we still keep small profits to maintain sustainable development, why not?
Lin Yang: BGI has strong R & D and Education sectors. How are you doing in commercializing these technology, such as in medical, agricultural field, or for average consumers?
Wang Jian: The first is in the early screening, prediction and diagnosis of genetic birth defects, and human genetic diseases. Our hope is not only serving Chinese people, but also serving people worldwide.
The second area which is closely related to gene is tumor. We have made similar contribution in predicting, detecting, and diagnosis of tumor in the early stages. On the one hand, there is huge social demand. It is a significant contribution to protecting people’s lives. On the other hand, it also has commercial return. We do not deny this.
We think that BGI’s growth and profit can maintain 20-30% sustainable growth. It is rare that our business development also goes well while doing basic research and serving the people. Just now some professors were saying that innovation and entrepreneurship are different concepts. Innovation should be shared, while entrepreneurship are confidential and exclusive. Innovation and entrepreneurship should be combined. BGI is not only doing innovation and entrepreneurship, but also benefiting the humanity.
Lin Yang: How do you see China’s current trend of innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as theinnovation-driven development model for the next stage of growth?
Wang Jian: China has been catching up with the world in the past 30 years. Now to get out of the middle-income trap, science and technology shall serve as the foundation, and commercializing the scientific and technological achievements is important. This is an important concept on innovation.
The professor just talked about how to connect innovation and entrepreneurship. These are two entirely different concepts. How can they be effectively combined? I think this is a challenge for China’s national policy, universities, and entrepreneurs. I think BGI has already stepped ahead. With a good understanding of all these,
China may get out of the middle-income trap faster, making people happier, and the country more prosperous. Thereare still big challenges for the national polices to support these fundamentally.
Policies and regulations are very important for a country’s development besides the innovation
and entrepreneurship by scientists and entrepreneurs. Many challenges are in policies and regulations. Innovation is something brand new, yet policies and
regulations are made based on the past productivity and technological breakthroughs. This creates conflict. BGI’s biggest challenge is its need for more policies and regulations that can provide favorable space for exploration and development, unlike the current environment where we are confined in the same place to do innovation. I think the challenges and difficulties we face today are the China’s future challenges and difficulties. If well solved, China’s future will be promising.
Lin Yang: We all know that in the past 10—20 years, innovation was led by the internet, informationtechnology advancement. China’s rapid economic development also largely benefited
from the internet development. Some say that the next round of technologicalbreakthrough will be in AI, life sciences and biotechnology sectors. What arethe innovation trends in the field of life sciences in the next 5- 10 years?
Wang Jian: I am a “rebellion”. Industrial revolution was the most glorious time in history, but surely the shortest. It is not people-oriented, but more associated with wealth. Wealth is not what you are born with, and not what you can take when die. I do not know why people want to spend so much time on that.
We are born with our gene given by our parents. When we die we leave it to future generations. Why not doing things about our lives? I can predict that the people-oriented new life sciences and life economy is coming. It will become the newest and forever-lasting model of social development, in unstoppable development scale, speed and model, after the industrial revolution. No one will be over-satisfied with their health, life expectancy and beauty. I believe in these “two quality” theory, a good health quality, no one will object; good beauty quality, no one can resist. What did all the past sovereigns and emperors do eventually after their glorious life? They all were pursuing longevity. Can we also pursue that? Therefore, the ultimate pursuit of human development is the pursuit of health, longevity, and beauty.
I am not optimistic about the industrial revolution, I believe in the life economy. Life sciences and life technology is the highest and ultimate pursuit of human kind, which will lead all other aspects of development.
Lin Yang: Do you mean that many years later, we may not have to worry about how long we live or howbeautiful we are? We can live however long we want, and however beautiful wewant? What can we imagine the meaning of our life at that time?
Wang Jian: I dare not say that we can live however long we want, however beautiful we want. We expect though. Whether it can come true or not, it will rely on the scientific development, rely on the law of nature, how much can we decode it.
What is the meaning of life? We live in this world, live a happy, healthy life. This is the meaning of life. Do we live to read books or to create wealth? No! We live to have a wonderful life journey. The most wonderful thing in life is: when you are alive, have you ever helped others? Have you left something remarkable to nextgenerations?
Lin Yang: Nowadays a lot of innovation is not only disruptive but also cross-discipline. In the future, technology advancement in life sciences may penetrate into other areas. For example, DNAsynthesis may replace the current silicon and become data storage medium, etc. Would you please share with us how the future breakthroughs in life sciencesand biotechnology will indirectly or directly impact our lives and society?
Wang Jian: Only things that are around our lives make sense. I have repeatedly stressed this. I am not optimistic about materials, which is useless. You see those who buy a pile of diamonds made of carbon? It does not make sense. So what, for what? The value of life is the most valuable.
How to maintain those that are life-related, art and people-related to replace the production in many industrial processes is something you can see and you can feel.
Gene synthesis and gene storage technologies are all important research tasks at BGI. A small tube of DNA, even the invisible amount, can replace the amount of 1T data on a hard disk. So without question, this new medium will replace silicon someday. But the cost is still high. In addition, many people have not accepted this concept. Without scale up, it seems very expensive. I believe that in the next decade or two, it will become a new development model.
Nothing will make people more excited and more look forward to than life sciences and bio technology. So I am definitely not a fan of industrialization. I must be the industrialization’s largest “rebellion”.
(Conclusion) Wang Jian: Finally, I would like to say, the era of life economy is coming. It is characterized by people-orienteddevelopment and enabling better life, rather than human competition, or fighting for resources. It is completely contrary to the industrialization and the capitalism. Hope that your innovation institute can realize that the development of human society is facing a huge turning point.
Innovation Ideas Institute